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The Social Security Name List–and how it grew

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 Since the Social Security site showing the rankings of baby names is the bible for so many nameberries, we thought we’d turn to webmaster Jeff Kunkel to give us some insight into how it developed–and his instrumental part in it.

Soon after Social Security joined the internet, I became webmaster for my office, the Office of the Chief Actuary.  A high priority in those days was providing the public with information on cost-of-living increases and other things that affected Social Security beneficiaries.  The lists of baby names begun by Michael Shackleford, who was then a co-worker, were decidedly a low priority.

However, the popularity of the baby name web pages soon became apparent.  Dissatisfied with simply presenting the baby names as lists of the top 1000 names by sex for each year of birth, I wrote an interactive computer program that would allow people to select the year of birth, select the number of names to display, and select whether to display the number of occurrences of each name.  In essence, the program allowed people to generate their own customized lists.

My desire to see how the popularity of my daughter’s name changed over time, coupled with the success of that list-generating program, inspired me to write another program that would provide a way to see time trends in the baby name data.  The resulting new program proved to be even more popular than the list-generating program.

Over time I continued to add new features to our baby names website.  These have included popular names by decade, popular names over the last 100 years, and, at the suggestion of a coworker, popular names for twins.  With my education in statistics, I couldn’t help but wonder about changes in popularity, so I created a new page that shows the change in popularity between the most recent year and the previous year and another page that shows how changes in popularity are related to popularity—the more popular the name, the smaller the change.

From the beginning, there were people who wanted more than the top 1000 names.  And in the early days, we naively provided the data per individual request.  When I took over the project, I was concerned with the privacy issue that someone with an unusual name could be identified and his or her year of birth discovered and so I rejected all requests for more than the top 1000 names.

This year I was able to compile lists of names for names with at least 5o ccurrences in each year of birth.  I put all of these lists, one for each year of birth going back to 1880, in a large “zip” file, and I provided access to the file from our page “Beyond the Top 1000 Names.”  The fact that the names beyond the top 1000 are not available through our interactive program helps to ensure that our servers will not be overloaded.

As I approach retirement, I look back on my enhancements to the baby name pages with a sense of satisfaction because these pages have proven to be so popular.  Also, developing these pages was an enjoyable experience, one of many that I’ve had while working at Social Security.

JEFF KUNKEL began his career with the Social Security Administration in 1973 as an actuary, rising to the position of supervisory actuary.  He received a BA in mathematics from Lehigh University and an MA in statistics from Penn State, is married and has one daughter.  He will be retiring on October 1.

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